TOP 10 of 2014: Hospital issue a big debate in 2014

Published 7:30 pm Tuesday, December 30, 2014

VAIL STEWART RUMLEY | DAILY NEWS ON THE DOTTED LINE: Belhaven Mayor Adam O’Neal signs the mediation agreement that will give Vidant Pungo Hospital an additional 90 days to find new management, rather than close the hospital. Looking on are Vidant Health President and CEO Dr. David Herman (left) and Dr. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP.

ON THE DOTTED LINE: Belhaven Mayor Adam O’Neal signs the mediation agreement that will give Vidant Pungo Hospital an additional 90 days to find new management, rather than close the hospital. Looking on are Vidant Health President and CEO Dr. David Herman (left) and Dr. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP.


Throughout 2014, Vidant Pungo Hospital in Belhaven was a hot issue. From its closure to a mediation agreement between Vidant Health and the Town of Belhaven and the NC NAACP to Belhaven Mayor Adam O’Neal’s walk to the nation’s capital, Vidant Pungo Hospital is the Washington Daily News’ No. 2 story of the year.

Vidant Health’s decision to close Vidant Pungo Hospital and replace it with an around-the-clock multispecialty clinic was announced in early September 2013. Its stated reasoning was that the hospital was losing $2.5 million a year. That announcement was the catalyst for rallies in support of keeping the hospital open, a forum conducted by Vidant Health officials to explain the decision to close the hospital and meetings between Vidant Health officials and local government officials to explore possible options related to providing health care as the hospital prepared to close.

Belhaven officials, especially Mayor Adam O’Neal, opposed the closing of the hospital and believed that if the hospital closed the new clinic replacing it should have a full-service emergency room. Vidant Health officials indicated that likely wouldn’t happen. Belhaven officials contended Vidant Health was not upfront with the town and its residents concerning the hospital’s future when it took over ownership and management of the hospital several years ago. A primary concern of Belhaven officials, residents and others in the area served by Vidant Pungo Hospital is how the closing would affect emergency medical services in the hospital’s service area. They worried that longer response times and transport times to other medical facilities would result in lives lost.

In September 2013, the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted to support the Town of Belhaven in its effort to retain full emergency-room services for whatever medical facility the town ends up with in light of Vidant Health’s plans to close Vidant Pungo Hospital.

In early November 2013, the commissioners voted to table action on an offer by Vidant Health to provide the county up to $500,000 to help transition the county’s EMS system to the paramedic level during the next several years. And then in December, Vidant Health purchased 19.4 acres in the town for the new multispecialty clinic that would be open 24 hours a day. The clinic was set to be located at 601 Old County Road, land south of U.S. Highway 264.

Once the hospital closed, physician and outpatient services were made available at the Vidant Medical Group practices in Belhaven. Twenty-four hour care became available at Vidant Family Medicine on Haslin Street in Belhaven. Primary and specialty care were made available at the Vidant Family Medicine locations on Allen and Water streets in Belhaven.

Vidant Health had scheduled the hospital closing for April 1, but the combination of public objection, a civil rights complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services by the NAACP and mediation by U.S. Department of Justice representatives landed a three-month-extension deal to give the community time to come up with options to keep the hospital operating after July 1. That same month, while a community-based organization was being assembled to tackle the hospital’s takeover and transfer, the town was offered a $2 million loan from the Beaufort County Commissioners and $1 million from Vidant to aid in the saving of the hospital. However, despite efforts to find a viable plan to continue its operations, Vidant Pungo was closed July 1 and Beaufort County Emergency Management was notified that it should beef up its emergency services accordingly. And despite the Town’s request for another extension, Pantego Creek LLC — a third party created when Vidant bought the hospital, originally, which represented the Pungo District Hospital’s original membership — declined an extension. Pantego Creek LLC determined that amending the earlier agreement with Vidant to facilitate a transfer of the hospital’s control to the Town was not in the best interest of its members and the community at large, as under certain circumstances, the transfer could result in the termination of Vidant’s obligation to construct and operate the new clinic.  Furthermore, Pantego expressed strong doubts regarding the long-term viability of the hospital’s ability, as reorganized, to deliver healthcare services and to provide for the needs of local residents.

Following the closure of the hospital, the NC NAACP reopened its Title 6 Civil Right complaint, which was withdrawn at the time of the mediation agreement. Also, soon after the closure, a 48-year-old Hyde County woman died from cardiac arrest while waiting for a helicopter to transport her to the nearest hospital. Belhaven and Hyde County residents expressed regret that the hospital in Belhaven had closed, which was only 30 miles from the Gibbs’ residence in Swan Quarter.

“We don’t know if she would have survived,” said Dr. Charles Boyette, Gibbs’ doctor since she was a teen. “But she didn’t have the opportunity.”

Following Gibbs’ death and in an effort to generate support for the reopening of the hospital, O’Neal announced his plans for a two-week, 273-mile march to Washington, D.C., in July. Throughout the journey to advocate for Medicaid expansion and in opposition of the hospital’s closure, O’Neal met with local, state and national government leaders, including Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe. O’Neal also held a rally in Richmond, Va., and upon reaching the nation’s capital, a rally was held to raise awareness, which was attended by members of the Belhaven and Hyde County communities, who took buses to attend. O’Neal also met with several members of the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives, as well as representatives with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which has been investigating the closing of the hospital.

Since O’Neal’s march, the Town of Belhaven and the NC NAACP has met Vidant in a Beaufort County superior court case, in which Vidant was asked to keep the status quo of the hospital, pending the investigation by HHS. O’Neal and other town officials have said Vidant removed vital equipment for the hospital’s reopening, which facilitated the court case. Per Vidant’s request, the court has since been moved to federal court and is awaiting hearing.

On Aug. 28, the town revoked a building permit and denied building plans for Vidant’s proposed clinic despite having originally approved the permit on Aug. 1.

“We are disappointed that the town of Belhaven would revoke a permit that they had already granted,” said Dr. David Herman, CEO of Vidant Health. “Belhaven and the region would benefit from this new facility. We remain committed to pursuing healthcare solutions that will serve this region.”

O’Neal said Vidant bought the piece of property, which was not zoned for a clinic after being advised by the town that it was not popular to be rezoned. Last week, the town’s planning board met and voted unanimously to revoke the permit after reviewing the situation, O’Neal said.

“They were told that it was not popular to put a clinic in a residentially zoned area, but they continued pushing forward even knowing the piece was not popular to be rezoned,” O’Neal said. “We focus on reestablishing the hospital in Belhaven. A 24-hour doctor’s office in Belhaven is not the remedy we need.”

In recent weeks, Belhaven has announced a $6 million-loan from the United States Department of Agriculture, which will aid the town in reopening the hospital and replacing necessary equipment for startup. It has also been applying for additional grant money from other sources to aid in the hospital’s reopening, and is currently in discussion with an organization that may be willing to take over and operate the hospital.